The outcome is rarely certain when state government asks voter permission to spend $7.5 billion of the taxpayers’ money, but it’s also unusual for a ballot proposition to win as wide a range of support as Prop. 1 already had more than a month before the Nov. 4 Election Day.
Every poll shows the measure winning by a wide margin among voters who know anything about it; in fact, the more voters know, the more likely they are to back this.
One big reason is the ongoing drought, California’s fifth dry spell of the last 40 years that’s lasted three years or longer. Those numbers mean the state has been in drought through almost 40 percent of the modern era.
But through all those dry and dusty spells, Californians have willingly, even enthusiastically, increased water efficiency. Southern Californians cut per capita water use more than 25 percent, while Central Valley farms invented new drip irrigation methods. Still, the water shortage persists, and now there’s rationing in many areas.
No wonder voters want to do something, almost anything, to end the shortage. In the bond proposal before them now, among others, are programs to clean up polluted or partially spoiled ground water, one affected area being the San Fernando Valley portion of Los Angeles, where pollution cuts amounts of usable well water while it also complicates efforts to recharge the local aquifers with storm runoff and recycled “gray” water.
One large project this bond might enable is a raising of the Shasta Dam near Redding, which opponents say would flood sites sacred to the Winnemem Wintu Indian tribe, prompting tribal leaders to call any such project “a form of cultural genocide.” Another big development would likely be the proposed Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin River. When full, this one would inundate and dwarf the existing Millerton Lake created by Friant Dam and drown several active hydroelectric dams, costing about 313 megawatts of electricity.
But nothing in the water bond makes either of those projects certain. Construction proposals would be evaluated by the state and far more efficient, less costly new underground storage could replace the big dams. The best argument for that shift is that California already has more than 1,400 dams, and as White House science adviser John Holdren noted early this year, “The problem is not that we don’t have enough reservoirs, it is that we do not have enough water to fill them.”
Even if large dams were built, intending to capture more water than before during wet years to provide better coverage during dry ones, they would get only about $2.5 billion, one-third of this proposed bond.
Another $850 million would go toward cleaning up ground water and $395 million to better manage winter flooding and save more water that now runs uselessly out to sea. A few hundred million more would go to expanding the state’s sometimes halting efforts to recycle water, making so-called grey water that’s been used to wash clothes and dishes more readily available for watering trees and other plants.
One of the best parts of all this is that for the largest projects, matching money would have to come from the interests that might use most new water supplies. In short, this would not be a pure taxpayer subsidy of big farms, nor would it leave them entirely on their own. It’s a compromise, and that’s often the most effective way to get things done.
Agood measure of this compromise is that it drew better than two-thirds majorities in both the state Senate and Assembly, and now has the support of groups frequently opposed to each other. So the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and Audubon California are allied with the California Farm Bureau Federation and virtually all major water districts.
The major opposition comes from fisheries advocates perpetually fearful of encroachment on water quality and supplies in the Delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. They call this “a hogfest of (pork) projects…” No doubt there would be plenty of pork; how else to get so many politicians and bureaucrats on board?
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t needed. There was similar opposition when Gov. Jerry Brown’s father, the late Gov. Pat Brown, pushed the state Water Project in the 1960s. Imagine where the state would be today without that.